What will it take to tear down Hollywood’s “Great Wall” of racism?
When Asian actors are whitewashed from films, it has consequences far beyond the box office
For Washington Post Opinions
They used to call me “Jackie Chan.”
This wasn’t schoolyard bullying from white kids. I wasn’t at a racially charged political rally. This was about 15 years ago, during my college years, from elementary-age Mexican American children in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, where I lived part time and which is home to a 94 percent Latino community.
These kids weren’t coming from a place of prejudice or hate. They were barely 6 years old. But they called me Jackie Chan because at the time he was the only pop culture reference they could point to when they saw an Asian dude like myself. Never mind that I’m Korean American and Chan is Chinese. Big difference, as someone from either ethnicity would be quick to point out.
It’s why conversations like #StarringJohnCho or #StarringConstanceWu are happening. It’s why the #OscarsSoWhite conversation erupted in outrage when Chris Rock made jokes at the expense of Asian children at the Academy Awards. It’s to highlight whitewashing, and the re-imagining of Hollywood as a diverse industry where Asians can headline a film, where black films can finally “travel.” We’re not all Jackie Chan, but he was the only Hollywood hero those kids could point to.
But like some Internet troll threatening to overtake the conversation, enter “The Great Wall,” a big-budget Matt Damon vehicle that has something to do with building the Great Wall of China to protect against dragons. The film’s casting of Damon feels like an inverse of the #StarringJohnCho meme. It sparked outcry from the Asian American community, particularly in a blistering tweet from Constance Wu, the “Fresh Off the Boat” actress who has taken her role as a breakthrough star in diversity with the earnestness and thoughtfulness it needs.
She gives no quarter to Damon, Hollywood or the Chinese studio in her criticism. But she also recognizes that this issue is far more complex than your regular whitewashing.
“Not blaming Damon, the studio, the Chinese financiers,” she tweeted; it’s about awareness. That’s not her being magnanimous, it’s just her plainly laying out the big-picture challenge of upending the systematic racism that would cause casting decisions that marginalize minority actors.
Yes, “The Great Wall” is not only directed by Zhang Yimou, one of the world’s most celebrated directors, but it’s also financially backed by a huge mainland China company. And it may seem to make sense to want a white lead, especially one with Damon’s star power, in what’s become the most expensive Chinese production to date. And the studio’s perception that the film would perform better with Damon is likely correct, said Jeff Yang, a Wall Street Journal columnist and father of Hudson Yang, the child star of “Fresh Off the Boat.”
“From a pragmatic perspective, Damon is the Chinese money hedging its bets,” Yang said in an email to The Post, adding that “The Great Wall” has a largely Chinese cast. “He won’t exactly hurt the Chinese box office but he gives American audiences a reason to check the movie out.”
But how is the perception that movies can’t be successful without white lead actors learned? We have a recent example of shocking racism out of China with a detergent ad that sparked international outcry just a few months ago. And remember a little movie called “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the one that blew out records and starred a black man? Star John Boyega was inexplicably shrunken in size for the promotional posters in China.
Being backed by Chinese investors doesn’t absolve the film from perpetuating the racist myth of only white men being capable to save the world, even if it’s within a ludicrous framework like fighting dragons on the Great Wall of China. Deferring to that excuse underestimates the power that Hollywood holds over the world and how it shapes international perceptions of people and nations.
“Hollywood makes stars, stars don’t make Hollywood,” Yang said. “Nothing but the inertial residual of institutional racism prevents U.S. studios from identifying diverse performers of every background and giving them both the great showcase roles and the promotional support necessary to turn them into global icons.”
Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim (of “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-0″ fame) lent support to Constance Wu in a Facebook post, calling her a “badass,” and clarifying that he hadn’t seen the film. But the larger point doesn’t escape him.
“I do agree with the notion that the ‘whitewashing’ of roles that were written for, or originally intended to be played by a someone Asian, is an ongoing problem,” Kim said. “One that directly affects the livelihoods of minority performers who work hard to make a living, yet already get fewer opportunities to begin with.”
The irony of him saying this as he plays a Chinese sidekick to two white men on “Hawaii Five-0″ does not escape him. In responding to a Facebook comment that criticized him on that fact, he agreed and added, “But I hope you see that by pointing out that our lead is an ‘Australian born white guy,’ that you are actually citing another example of what Constance is trying to highlight.”
Damon himself had to confront the issue last year, when “Damonsplaining” became a thing after he interrupted black filmmaker Effie Brown by saying, “When you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” So much for that.
To his credit, Damon has talked about how Hollywood has a “long, long way to go” to address “systemic injustices around race and gender” that are much bigger than the Oscars.
On the lack of diversity from the response for producers for “Project Greenlight,” Damon said, “That shocked us, because that wasn’t the spirit with which we put it out there. It was like ‘come one, come all.’ But it was predominantly white men who showed up and entered,” Damon said in an interview cited by the Associated Press. “That was a real lesson for us.”
Even for Jackie Chan, a martial arts legend in China’s film industry, and other stars from India, Korea and Japan, it’s a long road to Hollywood legitimacy. Yang co-wrote Jackie Chan’s 1998 autobiography and said the star was treated like a rookie in the United States, despite international acclaim even in Europe or Africa.
“But in the U.S., he might as well have been a Chinese takeout delivery guy to studio execs, who were absolutely stunned when ‘Rush Hour’ became a blockbuster franchise,” Yang said. “Even then, Hollywood ascribed the movies’ success more to Chris Tucker than Jackie, and even paid him more money for each film, despite the fact that Tucker hasn’t been able to successfully headline any other film that didn’t co-star Jackie.”
Things may change, especially with Hollywood’s increased focus on catering to the massive China market. “Furious 7″ and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” together grossed nearly $5 billion in China. Depending on aging white stars won’t work forever, Yang added, and landing roles in large franchises like “Star Wars” or even “Harry Potter” will take less pressure off the big-name talent to drive audiences to each film.
“Once it’s proven that it can be done — that movies with Asian stars can regularly make money — things will change very fast,” Yang said. “They did on TV, after all.”
If we keep pushing conversations about diversity, and if we continue to listen to people like Constance Wu, maybe someday it won’t be so lonely to be “Jackie Chan.”
This story originally appeared in The Washington Post’s Opinion section.